AFR - June15: Laboratories could make tomorrow’s food

Synthetic meat


THE menu of the future may feature such delicacies as in-vitro steak, 3D printed pizza and whole grains packed with more ­omega-3 than a can of sardines.

As unappetising as it sounds, the food of the future will be designed to satisfy more than a rumbling tummy.

Decades from now, it will also need to be bountiful to feed billions more mouths and it will need to be more ethically acceptable to a burgeoning middle class possibly opposed to the unsustainable and inhumane treatment of livestock.

Modelling by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences suggests the projected increase in the global population to 9 billion by 2050 will translate into a 166 per cent rise in demand for Australian-grown food compared with 2007.

Organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations feel cautiously optimistic that world food production can be increased to meet demand decades from now, but crop growers insist that nations will only be able to export enough to the developing world with the use of genetically modified produce.

The benefits of genetically modified food, according to its promoters, include growing crops that can withstand the climate extremes predicted for later this century, sub-standard soils and pests. But importantly, it can be fortified with hard-to-come-by nutrients, too.

The CSIRO has developed plants which produce seeds that naturally contain ­omega-3. This could help reduce the risk of further depleting fish stocks, with the bonus that populations feeding on grains with this essential fatty oil gain increased protection against a range of illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

While fresh fish may have to be off the dinner table, fresh red meat grown in a laboratory could become a staple.

Missouri-based Modern Meadow, among others, has been perfecting growing meat in petri dishes for years. Climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions’ executive director Matthew Wright, says present methods of producing meat will be closely looked at in the future.

“It takes nearly 200 litres of precious water and seven square metres to produce a single hamburger,’’ Mr Wright says.

“Animal farming is responsible for in excess of 20 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted into the air every day, and in the future as citizens of developing nations are more able to afford meat, the consequences of the livestock industry will become more dire.’’

Modern Meadows may just have a solution that ticks all the boxes for the planet as much as for diehard meat-eaters.

In a process that does not involve slaughtering, it extracts cells from livestock, puts them into a culture media where they ­rapidly reproduce and before your eyes you are growing meat using tissue-engineering technology pioneered by medical science to produce transplant organs for humans.

The embryonic technique uses the ­computer-driven 3D assembly of tissue known as bioprinting.

Mr Wright says another approach in future could “cut out the middle man or cow” altogether and build food that has the look, texture and taste of meat but uses only vegetable feedstocks as the building blocks, saving significantly on land and water resources.

Last year, Modern Meadow received a grant from PayPal founder Peter Thiel to develop 3D printing of meat.

More recently, NASA gave money to the Texan Systems and Material Research Corporation to come up with a way of printing foods such as pizza using layers of different flavoured extruded pastes, in order to improve the gastronomic experience of astronauts.

“Bakers and chocolatiers are already using this technology to decorate confectionery . . . it isn’t quite like Star Trek’s food synthesisers that would cook a three-course meal on voice command, but it could get there one day,” Mr Wright says.

But even sci-fi food needs to source natural ingredients and if global warming continues on its present trajectory, arable land to grow fruit and vegetables will become scarcer later this century.

The forward-thinking boffins at Atlanta’s Formation Design Group believe they have a solution that involves taking agriculture out of the land and into sea-faring farms.

The company has conceptualised a futuristic ocean-based platform for growing crops in a hydroponic, rain-collecting, ­carbon-neutral greenhouse environment immune to the elements.

Dubbed The Equinox, the offshore farm is designed to sail into port at harvest time and converts into a fresh food market when it docks.

Other organisations are working on designing vertical farms that grow produce in high-rise towers using artificial lights that promote photosynthesis.

Those in the know have no doubt that science will be able to solve the nutritional needs of expanding generations well into this century.

It will be food, Jim, but not as we know it.

Australia’s track record in helping to supply the global dinner table cannot be taken for granted as the planet navigates a new century possibly characterised by extreme weather conditions.

“The nation’s greatest risk to food security is in the volatility of its agricultural production,” DuPont Australia research and development manager Leo Hyde says.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest global food security index rates this volatility risk at 55 per cent and ranks Australia a dismal 92nd out of 105 countries in terms of threats to food production.

“This illustrates the threat that natural phenomena can pose to food supplies. So, yes, the risk that scarcity of food will be an issue this century is real and formidable . . . but it does not have to be inevitable.”

The March 2013 index, sponsored by DuPont, also has Australia on the 50th percentile for public spending on agricultural R&D, well behind country’s facing greater economic struggles, such as Spain and Portugal.

Mr Hyde says an important mechanism for managing shocks like extreme weather is investment in agricultural technology.

“There is no question that we face daunting challenges in feeding the world today and that the solutions for keeping a growing world fed will get more daunting as we head into the next century.

“DuPont is optimistic that these challenges can be met, however, because we believe there is a science to feeding the world and ensuring food security. Today, for example, some farmers drive machines guided by satellite than can increase efficiencies by planting precisely and weeding and fertilising and harvesting.”

The pace of scientific innovation is such that he says it is not difficult to imagine future farms planted with genetically modified seeds that can stand up to the harshest Australian weather conditions, from flooding to bushfire and drought.

Those seeds that can grow with little or no water and resist the effects of climate change are the future, DuPont says.

The Australian Financial Review